On Thursday 12th October Matthew Cornford came to Taunton and gave his talk on former Art Schools in ‘The Den’, formally the cafeteria of the art school that is now The Cosy Club bar and restaurant.

I had a lot to think about after hosting and attending this event so wanted to share some of what I learnt here as a way of processing and reflecting on the experience…

After all the planning and anticipation, it was really good to hear Matthew Cornford in person, articulate the reasons behind his project, ‘The Art School and The Culture Shed’ [documenting former art schools, a shared project with Professor John Beck that continues to this day] and how the idea originated from an unexpected trip to Great Yarmouth, where Cornford and Beck had studied, to discover that the building they learnt in [Great Yarmouth College of Art & Design] was now up for sale! Spurred by this they wondered what had become of all the other art colleges in towns throughout the country? Without wanting to fall into nostalgia, the project’s aim was to record how these buildings are or have changed and what elements of them may/or not remain as a piece of social/educational history. It made me realise the importance of documenting art schools, the particular type of education that they offered and how they function(ed) within their communities and impacted on the development or societal use of the surrounding town they are situated in. It would be a shame for the lived-histories of these places to disappear and it has made me value the relevance of some of what I do in writing and blogging which is, in some ways, to preserve those experiences so that they can be referred back to or learnt from by myself or others at a future date. At the same time in the context of our current location, a former art school turned into bar it feels as though the building has undergone one of the more fortunate transformations than some of the schools mentioned in Cornford’s talk!

The distinction Cornford makes between art schools and culture sheds was an example of how creativity, more often than not, cannot be forced or generated but needs to be cultivated. The model of ‘the art school’ as a site for creative thinking, alternative education and hub within towns from which opportunities and ‘culture’ can radiate out from. The role of the art school and how it has changed being at the forefront of my mind during this talk and made me think on what other buildings/organisations that I knew of, had sought to replace the hole made by the loss of these cultural institutions within the centre of towns to the outskirts.

The question remains a difficult but important one, how do we cultivate creativity?

“What art schools have been doing for much of the 20th Century is asking precisely the kind of questions about what culture is, what creativity means, what the position of the art and the artist is in society…. What happens when you turn the camera around from the art school and look at the environment in which you find those buildings?”

At first, Cornford’s talk felt more like a geography or history project but became more concerned with collecting visual records through photography and social histories of these buildings. It gains for being shared with audiences and what they in-turn bring to it; rather than a document or archive, by delivering and sharing it became more animated and instigated some very meaningful questions on how we re-use buildings, what is the ‘life’ of a building, how the creative arts can be used to develop an area and instigate change/debate and more broader conversations about art education and the impact space has on creativity in general.

One of the most interesting concepts that I personally took away from the evening was the significance of buildings and spaces on impacting ‘how we learn’ and influencing how people behave, use and operate. The book, ‘How Buildings Learn’ by Stewart Brand was sited. We have since found a link to a television series produced which can be seen here; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvEqfg2sIH0 

The issues caused by dynamics of space and buildings highlighted reasons why our five days spent in the Art Department of Huish Episcopi School were met with unexpected challenges as we worked-out how to use and work within this relatively foreign space we had been given access to. Having Conrford’s talk at former art school as a venue created a ‘reclaiming back the art school’ moment and helped trigger conversations and stories to be shared between his project and the experiences of the audience. I think I would have liked to explore this idea further in relation to our time spent at Huish Episcopi and how we may or not have responded more to the context we were working in rather than using it as a ‘space’. Similarly the idea of reclaiming spaces to highlight what they once were is something worth further investigation.

The calibre of audience and their willingness to participate in this talk was inspiring and truly humbling for me and I loved hearing people’s experiences; in one instance an artist in the audience who attended West Sussex School of Art & Craft learnt that their college had become flats for assisted living! Sometimes shocking, other times amusing that so many of these beautiful Victorian and later-built buildings for a myriad of complex reasons have changed into supermarkets, flats or buildings that do not reflect their previous use. Perhaps if they did not evolve in this way then they may be lost altogether? By means of self-preservation. It does however, more worryingly highlight the change in towns and communities whereby the pressure for more spaces for people to live, buy food and grow-old is seemingly of greater need than arts or culture rather than working with it to solve both problems. I feel that politically it speaks of a compartmentalising and devaluation of the arts into specific, purpose designated areas ‘to fill’ or as a means of decorating or animating public space rather than valuing it as a way of helping, problem-solving, engagement, community and sense of place. For those reasons, I regret that the talk failed to attract much in the way of new audiences and that I perhaps should have done more to involve or promote it more widely as the issues that Cornford’s photos of former art schools raise, are in some ways, more relevant to a broader awareness of how buildings within towns or public spaces evolve or are forgotten, than the images themselves. Art schools are the example used here, but I think I am interested in the wider impact that has and the relevance it has on a place such as Taunton.

I was pleased, however that the building of the former Taunton Art School for one night reclaimed some of its original purpose to educate and thank Matthew Cornford for his interest in coming to visit us and the Prospectus project as a whole.  The fact that it has generated some new connections to people and created an awareness to the documentation of the Taunton art school in Matthew’s project can also only be a positive outcome to which I am grateful for all who came, the support from The Cosy Club and Somerset Art Works who made the evening possible.

You can download and read Matthew Cornford and John Beck’s book for further reading and images here: The Art School and Culture Shed

Share This